On Saturday I attended a summit for those involved with a campaign called “Purpos/ed” . It’s a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around just this question: What’s the purpose of education?
I added my voice by sharing a short presentation which I’ve embedded below alongside the text I used for each slide. I want to stress though that my radical views about the school system and the relevance of our exam- passing culture are personal to me. It’s hard delivering a 3 minute presentation because you have to be blunt and there’s no time to qualify what you say. (Or maybe I just like being controversial!!) However I’m very happy working in Kingswood School precisely because it does have a holistic approach towards educating young people for all the aspects of their lives – work, play and creative enrichment.
Hello, I’m Nicola and for the last 5 years I’ve been a School librarian. For over 20 years before that I worked in public libraries where I got to see loads of people learning stuff – pursuing passions and becoming experts in the things that interested them. Heres my dad and at 92 years of age he’s still doing that. His passion is art and over the last 30 years since he retired he s been educating himself- borrowing DVDs and books learning how to paint and he gets immense pleasure and fulfilment from getting good at it.
Libraries at their best are places of educational empowerment where people of all ages go to learn and make adjustments to their lives for the better.
So imagine my surprise when I went to work in a school library to discover how in a school learning seems totally divorced from what goes on in the real world. I can’t stress enough how alien it felt and still feels – to enter this self-perpetuating parallel universe where kids learn to pass exams and teachers have to teach to improve their “value added” scores.
Take my dad. He was born in 1918 just as the first world war was ending. He’s an educated man and actually his experience of education is related to real life – fitted in around life changes and motivated by need to make sense of life, improve himself, get a job, go places. I’ve created this learning line for my Dad to show you what I understand about education- that learning + life experience is what makes for a true education. My dad’s lived 92 years and yet he’s only spent 9 years in full-time education in a dedicated learning institution.
Here’s when he spent 2 years (aged 50) at teacher training college making a career change to become a primary school teacher. To get there he engaged with learning (at aged 45) by studying during the day to pass 5 o’levels and working nights as a telephonist for BT. He was highly motivated because he knew his ambition to have a relatively well paid enjoyable job was achievable in the near future.
So I contend the purpose of education is to live a good life. My dad has had a good life. But he had 9 brothers and sisters -they grew up together in a 2 up 2 down railway cottage in Swindon. None of his family engaged with learning the way my dad did. And I’ve been trying to understand what made him different, what set him off on this course which enabled his own 2 children to go to university and his grand daughter to graduate from Cambridge last year. ( When we took my dad to visit her at her college on his 90th birthday he said : “this is the best day of my life”!)
There are 2 early experiences which may give the answer to this puzzle. One he talks about and one he doesn’t. When he was 12 he left school and went to work in the iron foundry of the GWR works in Swindon along with 12,000 other boys and men. He had to run with pigs of molten iron from the foundry to all the workshops. He has never told me about this but I learnt about the noisy, grimy foundry on a visit to Steam railway museum a few years ago. At 15 he started going to night classes to train to be a clerk and by the age if 21 he was working in the offices of the GWR. The experience he does talk about is at age 7 learning to ride a bike and one day setting off until he reached the countryside. he talks about being excited at seeing the beyond. How often after that he would ride out early morning and pick mushrooms for breakfast.
So was it curiosity about the world or the need to escape the foundry that motivated him to get an education? Whatever it was my dad’s learning life shows what I believe to be its purpose – to enable people to live well. They can only do this by getting access to the learning they need at the time they need it.